Catalogue entry

Joel Shapiro born 1941

T03697 Untitled 1978

Bronze 337 x 553 x 157 (13 1/4 x 21 3/4 x 6 1/4)
Incised inscription ‘SHAPIRO' on underside centre; stamped numerals ‘78 3/3' underside centre
Purchased from Paula Cooper Inc., New York (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Exh: Made by Sculptors/Door Beeldhonwers Gemaakt, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Sept.-Nov. 1978 (6, repr.)
Lit: Roberta Smith, ‘Joel Shapiro', Joel Shapiro, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1980, pp.7-31; Roberta Smith ‘Joel Shapiro', Joel Shapiro, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1982, p.32; Richard Marshall and Joel Shapiro in ibid., p.98

The following entry has been approved by the artist.

‘Untitled' 1978 represents a restatement, in the idiom of geometric abstract forms which characterises his work from 1976 onwards, of ideas and concerns which Shapiro had been exploring, using figurative imagery, in the earlier part of the decade. By 1973 Shapiro had moved away from Process Art with its emphasis upon the use of different materials, exemplified in works such as ‘75 lbs.' 1970 (repr. Whitechapel exh. cat. 1980, p.15 pl.10) and ‘Untitled 1971' (repr. Whitney exh. cat. 1982, p.39 fig.57), and had begun making floor and wall pieces, also using a variety of different materials, but in the form of scaled down simplifications of familiar objects. One of the first works of this type, ‘Untitled' 1972, was composed of four objects arranged on the floor, namely a balsa-wood bridge, a balsa-wood coffin, a balsa-wood boat and a bronze bird. The latter object also demonstrates Shapiro's interest in casting which began around this time. Other images which he subsequently employed include a horse in ‘Untitled' 1973-4, a table in ‘Untitled' 1974 and, most notably, a house. This final image, the best known in Shapiro's iconography, first appeared at his exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, in February 1974. It took two different forms. The first, ‘Untitled' 1973-4, is a floor piece consisting of a tiny cast iron house shape (repr. Whitechapel exh. cat. 1980, p.20 pl.17). The second, ‘Untitled' 1974, is a wall piece, in which the same form, also cast in iron, is situated at the far end of a long iron bar projecting from the wall and is supported on a chipboard base (repr. ibid., p.21 pl.18).

These works represent a reaction against the austerity of Minimalism. Although they demonstrate a concern with form, materials and space which derives from LeWitt, Andre and Judd, Shapiro's aim is to invest form and space with emotional content and personal meaning and this is alien to the Minimalist aesthetic. Shapiro realised this intention in two ways. Firstly, by reducing the scale of the objects he dramatised the impression of the distance between them when they occurred in groups and, when they occurred as single units, the sense of their isolation was invested with an emotional power which is amplified because the observer, in the public domain, feels unable to occupy the same small, intimate space. In the case of the house wall piece, the projecting bar seems physically to prevent the viewer from approaching. Secondly, the forms which Shapiro used - the house, chair, ladder and horse - often have autobiographical significance but also are invested with a range of associations from ‘home and family ... childhood and the past' (Roberta Smith 1982, p.20), which resonate on a universal level.

‘Untitled' 1978 is related to these earlier works because, like them, it is charged with emotional significance. At the same time, because of this psychological content, it differs from the works which immediately preceded it. After 1974, Shapiro's work changed in character, veering towards abstract shapes which often functioned as containers for space. Notable examples of this type of sculpture are ‘Untitled' 1974 (repr. Whitechapel exh. cat. 1980, p.23 fig.22), ‘Untitled' 1975 (repr. ibid., p.24 fig.24) and ‘Chasm' 1976 (repr. Whitney exh. cat. 1982, p.49 fig.67). The latter work is significant because it represents a point of equilibrium between form and reference. Abstract and symmetrical, it is a simple structure containing a dark interior space and it embodies, in Shapiro's view, ‘a dense and complex emotional content' (Whitney exh. cat. 1982, p.91). Thereafter, the metaphorical and referential nature of the sculptures gave way to increasing structural and geometric complexity. Thus, at the time when ‘Untitled' 1978 was made, Shapiro was concentrating on large bronze floor pieces, for example ‘Untitled, 1977, (repr. ibid., p.56 fig.74), which probe the surrounding space and describe larger spatial masses which abut at the point defined by the sculpture. The emphasis in such works has shifted away from their psychological aspects and moved towards sophistication of structure.

T03697 consists of a thin, flat, rectangular bronze plane forming a cantilevered field which projects from the wall; set into this, and piercing its surface at the back edge, is a hollow, bronze, box-shaped beam which extends vertically downwards and is sealed at the bottom. Thus ‘Untitled' 1978 is, like the bronze floor pieces which preceded it, fully expressed in abstract terms. Nevertheless, in other ways it relates more closely to the figurative sculptures Shapiro made in 1973-5. It connects in particular with the house sculpture, notably ‘Untitled' 1974 (repr. Whitechapel exh. cat. 1980, p.22 fig.26) and ‘Untitled' 1975 (repr. ibid., p.22 fig.21). In the former, a major component is also a cantilevered plane, although a narrower one. In the latter, the house form stands in the centre of a large rectangular field, which again is a dominant element in the Tate's work. In both ‘house' works, these planes are employed, not only for their formal qualities, but also for their capacity to evoke an emotional response in the observer. Roberta Smith has noted that

The bar, aggressive and abstract, projects outwards, holding us from the house, whose inverse perspective increases our feeling of being shut out and at the wrong end of things. Yet, its warp also gives the house a hesitating, uncertain quality, almost a kind of tremble, which makes us want to ignore the bar and draw near. (ibid., p.20)


The expansive plane which surrounds the house in ‘Untitled' 1975, defines the space in which the subject stands and increases the sense of its smallness, distance from the observer and isolation. In this way the space created by Shapiro is in one sense real, finite and measurable; in another it is, as Roberta Smith again notes ‘not completely real. It is a space moved through by the mind - or the emotions - as by the body' (Whitney exh. cat. 1982, p.19).

Another aspect of Shapiro's investigation of space has been described by the artist in connection with ‘Chasm', a work to which ‘Untitled' 1978 is, in this sense, related: ‘I was involved with holding space and with all these pieces as containers of space and I started to make pieces, like ‘Chasm' with heavy walls. ‘Chasm' was trying to make negative space positive (ibid., p.98)'. Shapiro regards the aperture between the side walls of ‘Chasm' as ‘a shaft of space', which has both a positive and a negative status. According to the artist, the work is ‘about entering and being entered' and this invests it with ‘sexual potency' (ibid., p.98). The treatment of space in ‘Untitled' 1978 is analogous and the work carries similar connotations. The relation between form and metaphor works in the following way: the flat rectangular plane isolates the aperture in its surface and this leads into a channel of space which passes downwards and out of sight. In this way it is suggestive of female sexual parts. The beam beneath the plate encloses this channel, and makes ‘negative space positive' (ibid., p.98), suggesting the male sexual organ. This duality - ‘the inside and the outside share the same space' (the artist, ibid., p.98) - and its function as a sexual metaphor is reflected in the artist's observation that ‘The bronze wall sculpture done in 1978 is androgynous' (ibid., p.98).

‘Untitled' 1978 was cast in bronze in two editions of three at the Bedi-Makky foundry, Brooklyn, New York. The Tate's example belongs to the first edition and is the third cast. In addition to the Tate's cast, numbered ‘3/3', the first example from this edition (1/3) is in the collection of the Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris, having passed from Paula Cooper Gallery via Galerie m, Bochum, Germany. The second example (2/3) belongs to the Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. The casts in the second edition, although similar in design, are larger than those in the first edition and measure 589 x 383 x 161 (23 7/16 x 15 3/16 x 6 11/16). The first example (1/3) belongs to La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, California and was shown in the exhibition Joel Shapiro at the 1982 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition (repr. fig.75). The second is in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. The third cast belongs to Paula Cooper Gallery and was shown in the exhibition Joel Shapiro at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam September-October 1985 (repr. no.5). An unspecified cast from this edition was shown in the exhibition Joel Shapiro Sculpture and Drawing at the 1980 Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition (repr. p.33 no.13).

Shapiro has observed that ‘what interests me in casting is its capacity to record and remember all aspects of the working process' (quoted in Michael Edward Shapiro, ‘Four Sculptors on Bronze Casting: Nancy Graves, Bryan Hunt, Joel Shapiro, Herk Van Tongeren', Arts Magazine, vol.58, Dec. 1983, p.115) and he has explained that ‘I began to cast because of my interest in unifying things and in making things that were tentative, firm. I was interested in the process of fusion' (ibid., p.114). This interest is evident in ‘Untitled' 1978 which, in essence, comprises two formally disparate members: the horizontal plane and vertical box-container.

Although the individual casts within the two editions are similar in form, their surface appearance inevitably differs as a result of the finishing processes employed after casting. Shapiro eschews the use of patination. He has stated that

Patinas are awful. Too old fashioned. Patinated bronze doesn't look like color; it looks like chemicals. The traditional idea of patination is about camouflage, covering up the casting process and making things appear historical. If you weld bronze sections together, a seam remains on the surface. Patination is the traditional means for healing the casting process. It's a hideous concept (ibid., p.115).


Instead the variegated surface of the bronze is determined by a combination of hand-filing and the effect of heat: ‘filing cuts through the darker, outer skin, creating a less light-absorbant area' (the artist, ibid., p.115). Although the casting and chasing process is a collaborative effort, Shapiro nevertheless asserts that ‘casting is a cooperative effort, but the artist must retain control' (ibid., p.115).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.563-5